(WARNING: Minor spoilers for A New Frontier and The Walking Dead ahead. Videos contain explicit language.)
The third season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead starts with a whimper disguised as a bang. It’s old hat really, seeing a family lose a loved one at the dawn of the zombie apocalypse, only to be maimed, injured, and perhaps even killed by the resurrected corpse of said loved one moments later. At this point these types of scenes are as trite as seeing Bruce Wayne’s parents murdered over and over again whenever Batman needs a reboot. It's underwhelming to say the least, especially after waiting over two years to catch up with our beloved Clementine who was last seen in dire straits. But hey, Walking Dead fans have certainly endured far worse.
The first episode of A New Frontier tries its best to set up new protagonist Javier, who you'll be role-playing as for most of this new season. Javier is certainly charming enough to be an adequate player character substitute, but his introduction comes at an odd juncture in the storyline. It’s sort of the video game equivalent of getting a random Tara episode inserted arbitrarily mid-season. It's not bad taken on its own, but its timing leaves something to be desired. This is Clementine's story. To delay gratification any further merely detracts from setting up these new characters, and it’s surprising that a studio so keen on narrative as Telltale wouldn't have anticipated this.
This is not to say that Javi, his sister-in-law (Kate), his niece (Mariana), and his nephew (Gabe) are bad characters by any means. They’re actually quite endearing if you give them time to grow, but flashing back to the onset of the outbreak is something most fans could probably do without at this point. We've seen it before. It’s the same reason Fear The Walking Dead hasn’t exactly been lauded. It’s treading water, it’s padding a well-worn narrative, and if the first two episodes of A New Frontier are any indication, expect more of it to come.
An Old Beginning
By the time the story catches up with Javi in the present day, both he and his remaining family members are still living in the past. They behave like Lee and Clementine’s original group did from the very first, much revered season of Telltale's game. Despite living through this large-scale breakdown of humanity for more than a few years now — out on the open road no less — Mariana, for instance, is still a chipper and green prepubescent girl, though it’s hard to imagine she hasn’t faced similar hardships as Clementine. The same could be said about Javi’s nephew, Gabe, who is roughly Clem's age but apparently hasn't had to step up and "be a man" yet. Meanwhile Kate, the somewhat forbidden love interest, has found time to raid marijuana crops and loot zig zags as the rest of the group scavenges for supplies. Also she's horny. It’s all a bit too forced and doesn’t fit the current state of the world given the narrative of the first two seasons, or the television show for that matter.
And that’s too bad because the voice acting and most of the dialogue options will likely still manage to grip players. Maybe if the introduction weren’t filled with so many tropes it would be easier to get lost in some of the more natural character interactions. But even if that were the case, these scenarios would still suffer from any direct comparisons with Lee and Clementine's humble beginnings, which is arguably the best origin story of the entire Walking Dead franchise (games, television show, and comics). Ransacking seemingly abandoned camps, avoiding herds, and discovering new towns — it’s all par for the course at this point and only further reminds players of the character they’re most invested in.
Not So Sweet Pea
The good news is that the story does eventually justify its meandering narrative structure once Clementine does show up. Voice actor Melissa Hutchison does a wonderful job maturing Clem’s mannerisms, making them both a bit older and colder. It becomes clear very quickly that finding out what exactly happened to Clem over the years will be one of the bigger mysteries of the game, and that’s fine. Patience is a virtue, and whatnot. It’s just unfortunate that Telltale seems to be parsing out the details of her backstory as frustratingly slow as Scott Gimple and AMC do for the television show.
While a few details are provided regarding the whereabouts of Kenny or Jane in the first episode, there’s still a lot that needs to be explained, specifically regarding baby AJ. This bit of backstory can certainly wait for now, but it will become a contentious point if Telltale continues to use flashbacks melodramatically to fill out episodes that are already on the short side.
These flashbacks are also the only time you will play as Clementine. It's a strange choice considering she's a character you helped shape in the first season via Lee's decisions, and one that you directly controlled in season two. Now she's relegated, for the most part, to a mysterious side character, which doesn't always feel right. It's reminiscent of Solid Snake's roll in Metal Gear Solid 2, and we all know how well that was received.
An Uncanny Frontier
Regardless of how willingly you accept Telltale’s narrative structure, technical issues will likely mar your experience anyway. While the PC version will probably fare better as usual, things like recognizing past save data, frame rate drops, and flickering textures seem unavoidable no matter your platform of choice. This is the same poorly optimized performance most have come to expect out of Telltale, and it’s getting more inexcusable with each outing. This is in spite of A New Frontier being their second attempt at using their newer engine. It’s disappointing, especially for a game that’s mostly focused on providing a rich narrative experience. If you’re playing on hardware that can run The Witcher 3, Uncharted 4 or Forza Horizon 3 quite well, but can’t handle The Walking Dead, that's on the developers.
Further ruining the experience is some rather stiff character animations. It sits in stark contrast with the top-notch voice performances. While stills of the game can look quite nice given The Walking Dead’s comic book art style, the game’s rigidity makes for a rather off-putting experience when the game is in motion. Not to mention, within the first ten minutes of the first episode characters’ lips were no longer synced with their dialogue. This isn’t a minor gripe, it’s detrimental to immersion.
Also distracting is how characters react to some of your choices. Unlike the show, the game gives you the ability to act as rationally or irrationally as you choose to, but that doesn't mean characters around you always will respond accordingly. At one point Clementine tells Javier, “Glad you’re finally listening to reason,” after he’s done nothing other than fully cooperate and side with her for the entirety of the first episode. It’s not a good moment considering the player could not have possibly comported themselves any more reasonably during this part of the narrative.
Confused And Amused
The first episode also leans too heavily on shock-value, particularly in its final moments. Gratuitous violence is something one probably expects from The Walking Dead, no question, but there are also lines that don’t need to be crossed unless you can do them tastefully. Things like torture and character deaths shouldn’t be plot devices; they should probably mean something, especially in Javier’s case as a new character.
There's a Dr. Denise type of moment that is somewhat gross to include if certain characters aren't given the proper time to grieve, and they simply can't. The episodes are over too quickly and — to Telltale's credit — they're also too fast-paced to include much pathos, which just feels wrong given this one specific scenario.
Regardless of these annoyances, the first episode almost has enough redeemable qualities to lend itself a tepid recommendation. Almost. It’s far from perfect, but Javier and Clem’s relationship is unique given the player’s role in developing it; the new cast of characters is likable and one would hope they would only continue to be fleshed out as the story progressed; and, most importantly, Clementine’s story does get filled in just enough to quench fans' collective thirst. Then episode two starts.
The second episode begins with another Javier flashback, more unnecessary exposition, and, eventually, a sickening frame rate (featured above). Motion blur is sometimes applied incorrectly, obscuring faces in the foreground when there is nothing to focus on in the background. The really stupid choices characters make at the end of the first episode lead to some really stupid drama in the next one. The brother versus brother dynamic is laid on thick as Kate spells out that Javier has the ability to make Gabe more like him and less like his hard-nosed older sibling, depending on his actions. Worst of all, the twist at the end is so contrived that it’s laughable. That's not hyperbole, it actually incited laughter.
For those reasons, as well as a few others not worth getting into (like branding people because that's what bad guys do), The Walking Dead: A New Frontier is a tough sell for newcomers. If you have played and enjoyed previous games, while one could certainly understand your intrigue, it’s still hard to say whether it’s worth tarnishing one of the best narrative-based adventure games of all-time and its lesser but worthy follow-up to experience this new content. That probably depends on your curiosity, morbid or otherwise, and your ability to stomach or skirt gross technical issues. It’s been somewhat of a disappointing experience thus far, but given what fans of the television show have tolerated for years now, maybe you’ll enjoy it or at least enjoy hate-playing it.